Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy’s emergence from lockdown — what he has called Phase II — is likely to begin May 4. Conte wrote in a Facebook post that although he wished he could just reopen “everything,” doing so would be irresponsible.
He called for a “serious, scientific program.”
The myriad task forces advising the government on Phase II include not just epidemiologists and health policy experts but also economists and psychiatrists.
“It’s not by chance that you use the same word, ‘depression,’ both economically and existentially,” said Fabrizio Starace, a psychiatrist on one task force. “We can expect an increase of conditions like anxiety, irritability, insomnia, relational problems. The fantasy everyone is entertaining is that of a return to normalcy. Clearly our gradual recovery won’t match normalcy.”
Experts advising the government, in interviews this week, described a society that will bear little resemblance to the one that existed before the outbreak, at least until there is a vaccine or reliable medical treatment.
“We need to rethink development, production, the speed of our lives, our lifestyles,” said Filomena Maggino, an adviser to Conte and a member of a Phase II task force.
Whereas Denmark, France and others in Europe are moving to reopen their schools first, advisers in Italy have recommended starting with businesses — only the ones least at risk. It remains unclear when schools or restaurants might reopen, or businesses that bring people close together, such as hairdressers and gyms.
Even a limited and tentative reopening of society will require dramatic changes, the advisers say. Mask-wearing will be encouraged until there is a vaccine or medical treatment. Once ordinary aspects of daily life, such as rush hour, must be reconsidered, they say, to reduce crowding on metros and buses.
“Companies may decide that shifts should be on a 12-hour basis. Or they start seven-day production time,” said Ranieri Guerra, a World Health Organization assistant director-general who is advising the Italian Health Ministry. “Public transport is obviously a potential source of infection.”
Though many of the details are still up for consideration, Italy’s workplace safety agency outlined its conditions for businesses to reopen and said companies would need to redraw factory floors to keep employees apart and ban face-to-face meetings. The document, published by the Corriere della Sera, also said companies should check the body temperature of anybody who enters.
Paolo Vineis, a Turin-based epidemiologist who is advising the government, said he was less worried about industries, which are “pretty well organized,” than he was about the general public.
For instance, he said, parents compelled to return to work may have limited options for child care while schools remain closed. Children may be left in the care of their grandparents — an especially vulnerable population — with parents risking infecting everyone when they return in the evenings.
In recent days, Italian media have carried stories theorizing how the months ahead could unfold. They’ve floated the idea of tighter restrictions on movement for the elderly and suggested ways in which Italians could carry on with summer beach vacations: with umbrellas spaced out and reservations required in advance. Newspapers have even run celebratory headlines mentioning the simple fact that, come May 4, outdoor walks will be allowed.
There will also be tighter surveillance, in the form of a contact-tracing app that uses Bluetooth technology. If people go to a museum, for instance, and come in contact with a person soon found to have the virus, they will receive a phone notification informing them that they might have been exposed.
Some Italians have voiced concern about privacy and security issues. Conte has emphasized the app is voluntary. But experts say 60 percent of people need to be using it for it to have much utility. A similar app in Austria has seen relatively limited uptake.
Even if the app is widely used in Italy, controlling future outbreaks will require an army of on-the-ground contact tracers to identify, test and isolate people who might have been exposed.
Pier Luigi Lopalco, an epidemiologist at the University of Pisa, said that in some regions, Italy doesn’t yet have the manpower.
“The app is not functioning alone,” Lopalco said. “You still need people to identify the case, make the control, to go to the home and do the testing.”
The greatest concern is that, as restrictions are eased, the virus could come roaring back — or that it could spread undetected if parts of the population aren’t being rigorously tested. That is what has happened in Singapore, where the cases spiked as the virus spread among migrant workers.
Experts said they could imagine a scenario in which future lockdowns in Italy are limited to one region or another, with thresholds set based on the risk to local hospitals. That would leave the poorer south with less leeway. On a per capita basis, some northern regions have four times the number of intensive care beds that Sicily does.
Italy ordered its nationwide lockdown six weeks ago, and the measures — which include closures and limits on people leaving their municipality — have succeeded in slowing the spread of the virus. This week, for the first time during the outbreak, Italy reported that the number of ongoing coronavirus cases was declining. Still, more than 25,000 people have died of the virus, the highest toll in Europe.
The virus has also taken a serious economic toll. Italy is likely to see its steepest recession since World War II.
For some, the thirst to return to normal is intense. This week, textile companies in Tuscany threatened to defy the government and reopen before the lockdown was lifted.
Roberto Rosati, 61, who owns one of those textile companies, said businesses were losing out on seasonal orders. His company was already stocked with face masks, gloves and scanners to measure employees’ temperatures, he said. Workers would be stationed at “astronomical” distances from one another. And yet, he said, bureaucratic hurdles were preventing the reopening — and threatening the future of his business.
“This will kill us,” he said of the stoppage. “We aren’t asking for money. We’ve been screaming since March to let us work.”